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Beyond Pemberley: Powder, Patches and Proposals – A Month-long Regency Romance

I don’t think I’ve fallen in love this month, but I hope I’ve made a good friend to while away a few hours over a pot of tea. (My husband of 13 years can breathe a sigh of relief)
I used to be a little (OK, very) snobbish about light, frothy, genre novels, wondering ‘why would any intelligent reader choose to waste their time reading a novel where you already knew the ending?’ But having spent February reading (mostly) romances set in Regency England, I can now understand why.

They are not especially demanding (some days you’re too tired to concentrate on complicated plots or characterisation), they can be light-hearted (because sometimes life is serious enough), they’re set in a historical era with different manners, customs and a strict social structure (a bit of escapism can be fun; it’s not too difficult to generally visualise the costumes and context if you’ve watched even just one Regency costume drama), the romances have a happy ending (because life is usually more complicated and unresolved, doesn’t always end happily and you don’t always end up with the right partner).

One of my friends who almost solely reads Mills & Boon Regency romances described them to me as ‘easy-to-read Jane Austen’. Once I would have dismissed her condescendingly; surely I would read the ‘real’ Austen and not be distracted by such frippery? But this month’s discipline has opened my eyes. Reading a number of Regency novels in quick succession has shown me a range of writing styles, and various levels of steaminess on the conjugal front. The hero (or anti-hero; the reformation of ‘a rake’ is more fun!) and heroine marry, they behave themselves (mostly) within strict moral and societal codes and there’s lots of description of costumes, material, balls, and everyone spends at least some time in Bath.
Other random things I’ve learnt, in no particular order:

  • What it means to be bon ton;
  • The importance of the look of a man’s legs in tight breeches, once memorably described as ‘shaped like a balustrade'(!);
  • What a beaver hat looks like;
  • That pregnancy or legs are inappropriate subjects for polite conversation (but of course!);
  • Lead: not just for building but used as make up;
  • That not to ride sidesaddle was considered most inappropirate for a gentlewoman;
  • That the true love of a faithful woman can transform even the worst ‘rakehell’;
  • The difference between ‘traditional regency romance’, ‘recency historical’ and ‘sensual regency historical romance’ (thanks Wikipedia).

So, what did I read? Here’s the list:

  • M.C.Beaton/Marion Chesney’s The School For Manners series (6 titles but as each one is only about 170 pages long, they were a fun evening’s read each; I loved the willful-daughter-taming chaperones for hire, the Tribble Twins; although not a pastiche, the author has a defiinite twinkle in her eye, if not her tongue in her cheek; all her novels are good, clean fun);
  • Mary Balough – A Summer to Remember (the second Bedwin prequel; very entertaining but with a few more saucy scenes than I originally expected; up a tree?!);
  • Georgette Heyer – The Black Moth (her first novel, created as an entertaining story for her younger, convalescent brother, published when she was just 19, it centres around a gentleman highwayman settling the affairs of his gambling brother – ‘terribly” exciting, I kept finding myself imagining Adam Ant in his Prince Charming mode…);
  • Baroness Orczy – The Scarlet Pimpernel (a ‘hangover’ from last month’s French Revolution theme, but also a romance in the same era mostly set on the other side of the Channel);
  • Victoria Connelly – The Perfect Hero (contemporary reworking of various Austen plots set in Lyme Regis as a production of Persuasion is filmed).

But there are so many more books I could have read: still to finish Persuasion (to my shame), I didn’t try out Galen Foley, Julia Quinn or Eloisa James (but now own at least one copy of each of their novels to enjoy another time). And I have 46 more Georgette Heyers to read…

Did I miss anyone else out?

It’s been a fun, February fling, but now onto more serious fare: ‘Nordic Noir’ for the month of March. Dark tales of murder and detection in northern wastelands. Any suggestions to add to my pile?

P.S. I couldn’t resist reading a few novels outside the monthly theme: The Dinner by Herman Koch for our reading group (odd, oppressive view of Danish middle-class life), Mutton by India Knight (an amusing story of a forty-something mother reflecting on ageing, and English middle-class life), My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece by Annabel Pitcher (for a Read Regional event, enjoyed in one evening, met author the next day; see post ‘The Joy of a Quick Read’.)

 Oh, to be a Recency woman...
Oh, to be a Recency woman…
 

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Viva la Revolution!

To ring in the new year, I though I’d go back more than 200 years for January’s theme: the French Revolution. Partly inspired by the film everyone’s talking about, Les Miserables, I thought I’d tackle a few novels set in an era I know little about. It shows how little I knew about both the story and history that I thought it was set in the Revolution, when it’s actually about a century later… To be honest, what I know about the French Revolution could fit onto a small, lacy handkerchief: Marie Antoinette, ‘la Guillotine’, Bastille, cake or bread, lots of flag waving. So, when I opened Hilary Mantel’s first novel, A Place of Greater Safety, I was all at sea, without any meaningful reference points. Her mighty tome explores the lives of three major players in the Revolution: Maximillien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulions, Georges Danton. (no, I’d not heard of them before now either)

I had to restrain myself from reading much else; I needed to focus my time and energies on getting through all 878 pages. Interestingly, I ended up reading both a paper copy from the library and a paid-for version on my Kindle. By the end, I’d probably read it twice as I skipped through both copies to find where I left off and thus realised how little I remembered from day by day or hour by hour. Mantel writes in an interesting, unusual style; at times conversational and gripping, other times confusing and overwhelming. There is a very long list of characters (helpfully listed at the front; difficult to flick to it on the Kindle) and Mantel doesn’t always refer to her characters by name when conversing.

It has certainly whetted my appetite for the magisterial Wolf Hall, at least I am familiar with the Tudor court and main events of the period; I am less likely to read this one alongside Wikipedia as I did with A Place of Greater Safety.

Once half way through, I couldn’t give up; all those hours spent reading would have been to naught. So I continued, persevered, often feeling as though I had an assignment deadline looming. So why did I continue? Simply, I don’t like giving up on a challenge; I felt as though I should continue to the bitter end. And I now have a soft spot for Robespierre, Camille and Desmoulins. And am looking forward to reading Wolf Hall. My appetite is now whetted. I know I won’t be reading this one alongside Wikipedia as I hope that A level history has stood me in good stead and I’ll at least be familiar with the main characters and events.

As A Place of Greater Safety was just so long (over 870 pages), it’s meant I haven’t read much else. Can I ask that this novel counts as about 4 novels towards this year’s novel count?

On the subject of other novels, I shall continue to read Les Mis (on the go on my Kindle) but at 1000 pages, it’s likely to be on the go for a while. I might also find the chance to see the film everyone’s raving about.

I struggled to find other novels about the Revolution; anyone know any more?

I’ve ordered a copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy from our library. It is full of ‘derring do’ by those rascally ‘Eeeenglish’ aristocrats smuggling French aristos from the embrace of ‘Madame Guillotine’. I am now quickly rattling through this, enjoying another perspective on the Revolution.

And I still haven’t got round to reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; another month perhaps…

As a segueway between the Revolution to February’s Regency Romance theme, I have started Cynthia Harrold-Eagle’s The Tangled Thread(the 10th installment in The Moorland Dynasty, not that I’ve read any of the earlier stories); It’s almost as though I’ve planned this…

Here’s hoping that February’s Regency Romance theme will allow me to rattle through novels at a much faster rate. Georgette Heyer, Mary Balough, and timely enough, Jane Austen; heaving busoms, strict conventions and even tighter trousers, arch observations, here I come…

 

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